Halakha (Jewish law), especially the Talmud tractate Shabbat, identifies thirty-nine categories of activity prohibited on Shabbat (Hebrew: ל״ט אבות מלאכות, lamed tet avot melakhot), and clarifies many questions surrounding the application of the biblical prohibitions. Many of these activities are also prohibited on the Jewish holidays listed in the Torah, although there are significant exceptions permitting carrying and preparing food under specific circumstances.
There are often disagreements between Orthodox Jews and Conservative Jews or other non-Orthodox Jews as to the practical observance of the Sabbath. It is of note that the (strict) observance of the Sabbath is often seen as a benchmark for orthodoxy and indeed has legal bearing on the way a Jew is seen by an orthodox religious court regarding their affiliation to Judaism.
And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: 'Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you. Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work [melakha – מְלָאכָה] therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death. Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel for ever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He ceased from work and rested.'
Though melakha is usually translated as "work" in English, the term does not correspond to the English definition of the term, as explained below.
The Rabbis in ancient times had to explain exactly what the term meant, and what activity was prohibited to be done on the Sabbath. The Rabbis noted Genesis 2:1–3:
Specifically, the Rabbis noted the symmetry between Genesis 2:1–3 and Exodus 31:1–11 – the same term melakha ["work"] is used in both places, and that in Genesis 2:1–3 what God was "ceasing from" was "creation" or "creating".
The Rabbis noted further that the first part of Exodus 31:1–11 provides detailed instructions for the construction of the Tabernacle, and that it is immediately followed by a reminder to Moses about the importance of the Shabbat, quoted above. The Rabbis note that in the provisions relating to the Tabernacle the word melakha is also used. The word is usually translated as "workmanship", which has a strong element of "creation" or "creativity".
From these common words (in the Hebrew original) and the juxtaposition of subject matter the rabbis of the Mishnah derive a meaning as to which activities are prohibited to be done on the Sabbath day.
Genesis 2 is not pushed aside by the commandments to construct the Tabernacle. The classical rabbinical definition of what constitutes "work" or "activity" that must not be done, on pain of death (when there was a Sanhedrin), is depicted by the thirty-nine categories of activity needed for the construction and use of the Tabernacle.
The thirty-nine melakhot are not so much activities as categories of activity. For example, while "winnowing" usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain, it refers in the Talmudic sense to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish. (Gefilte fish is a traditional Ashkenazi solution to this problem.)
Many rabbinical scholars have pointed out that these regulations of labor have something in common – they prohibit any activity that is creative, or that exercises control or dominion over one's environment.
The definitions presented in this article are only 'headings' for in-depth topics and without study of the relevant laws it would be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to properly keep the Sabbath according to Halacha/Jewish Law.
There are two main ways to divide the activities into groups, one is according to the work needed to make the Tabernacle, the other according to the work needed for the man himself.
The thirty-nine creative activities are based on the Mishna Shabbat 7:2.
Definition: Promotion of plant growth.
Not only planting is included in this category; other activities that promote plant growth are also prohibited. This includes watering, fertilizing, planting seeds, or planting grown plants.
Definition: Promotion of substrate in readiness for plant growth, be it soil, water for hydroponics, etc.
Included in this prohibition is any preparation or improvement of land for agricultural use. This includes dragging chair legs in soft soil thereby unintentionally making furrows, or pouring water on arable land that is not saturated. Making a hole in the soil would also provide protection for a seed placed there from rain and runoff; even if no seed is ever placed there, the soil is now enhanced for the process of planting.
The Mishna (Shabbat 7:2) lists plowing after planting, although one must plow a field before planting. The Gemara asks why this order occurs and answers that the author of this Mishna was a Tanna living in Israel, where the ground is hard. Since the ground is so hard in Israel, it needed to be plowed both before planting and after planting. The Mishna lists plowing second, teaching that the second plowing (after planting) is [also] prohibited. (The plowing before the planting is also prohibited, if not by the Torah, certainly Rabbinically). The Rambam lists plowing first, and planting second.
Definition: Severing a plant from its source of growth.
Removing all or part of a plant from its source of growth is reaping. Rabbinically it is forbidden to climb a tree, for fear this may lead to one tearing off a branch. It is also forbidden rabbinically to ride an animal, as one may unthinkingly detach a stick to hit the animal with.
Definition: Initial gathering of earth-borne material in its original place.
E.g. After picking strawberries, forming a pile or collecting them into one's pockets, or a basket. Collecting rock salt or any mineral (from a mine or from the Earth) and making a pile of the produce. This can only occur in the place where the gathering should take place. So, a bowl of apples that falls in a house can be gathered as 1) they do not grow in that environment and 2) they have already undergone their initial gathering at the orchard.
Definition: Removal of an undesirable outer from a desirable inner.
This is a large topic of study. It refers to any productive extraction and includes juicing of fruits and vegetables and wringing (desirable fluids) out of cloths, as the juice or water inside the fruit is considered 'desirable' for these purposes, while the pulp of the fruit would be the 'undesirable.' As such, squeezing (S'chita) is forbidden unless certain rules are applied. The wringing of undesirable water out of cloths may come under the law of Melabain (Scouring/Laundering). One could view this activity as extraction, while Borer (separation) is more akin to purification.
Definition: Sorting undesirable from desirable via the force of air (Babylonian Talmud), or dispersal via the force of dominic (Jerusalem Talmud).
Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema) holds that the definition according to the Jerusalem Talmud should be used, which includes within its precept the definition of the Babylonian Talmud. This is more inclusive and general than the Babylonian Talmud's definition and therefore more things fall under this category.
It also refers to separating things that are desirable from undesirable ones. Example: If one has a handful of peanuts, in their paper-thin brown skins, and one blows on the mixture of peanuts and skins, dispersing the unwanted skins from the peanuts, this would be an act of 'winnowing' according to both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud.
According to the Jerusalem Talmud's definition, the use of the Venturi tube spray system and spray painting would come under this prohibition, while butane or propane propelled sprays, which are common in deodorants and air fresheners, etc. are permissible to operate as the dispersal force generated isn't from air, rather from the propellent within the can. According to the Babylonian Talmud's definition, neither of the above spraying methods is involved in sorting undesirable from desirable and therefore not part of this heading. However, as mentioned, the Rema rules that, unusually, the Jerusalem Talmud's definition is the applicable one.
Definition: Removal of undesirable from desirable from a mixture of types.
In the Talmudic sense usually refers exclusively to the separation of debris from grain – i.e. to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish. (Gefilte fish is one solution to this problem.)
Dosh & Borer contrasted. This activity differs from Dosh (Threshing/Extraction) as here there is a mixture of types. Sorting a mixture via the removal of undesirable elements leaving a purified, refined component is the key process of Borer.
Dosh is the extraction of one desirable thing from within another which is not desired. "Dosh" does not entail sorting or purification, just extraction of the inner from the unwanted housing or outer component, such as squeezing a grape for its juice. The juice and the pulp have not undergone sorting, the juice has been extracted from the pulp.
For example, if there is a bowl of mixed peanuts and raisins, and one desires the raisins and dislikes the peanuts: Removing (effectively sorting) the peanuts from the bowl, leaving a 'purified' pile of raisins free from unwanted peanuts, would be acts of Borer as the peanuts are removed. However, removing the desirable raisins from the peanuts does not purify the mixture, as one is left with undesirable peanuts (hence unrefined) not a refined component as before, and is thus permissible. Note that in this case there has not been any extraction of material from either the peanuts or raisins (Dosh), just the sorting of undesirable from desirable (Borer).
Borer with Mixed Foods:
The Three Conditions of Borer:
Examples of Permissible and Prohibited Types of Borer:
Definition: Reducing an earth-borne thing's size for a productive purpose.
"Tochain" (grinding) can arise in simply cutting into pieces fruits or vegetables for a salad. Very small pieces would involve "tochain," therefore cutting into slightly larger than usual pieces would be in order, thus avoiding cutting the pieces into their final, most usable, state.
All laws relating to the use of medicine on the shabbath are a Toldah, or sub-category, of this order, as most medicines require pulverization at some point and thus undergo tochain. The laws of medicine use on the sabbath are complex; they are based around the kind of illness the patient is suffering from and the type of medication or procedure that is required. Generally, the more severe the illness (from a halachic perspective) the further into the list the patient's situation is classed. As a patient is classed as more ill there are fewer restrictions and greater leniencies available for treating the illness on the Sabbath. The list of definitions, from least to most severe, is as follows: -
For most practical applications the use of medicines on the Sabbath, there are primarily two categories of non-life-threatening (Pikuach Nefesh) illnesses and maladies. They are either Maychush b'Alma or Choleh Kol Gufo. In many or most practical applications for non-trained personnel, there are practically only three category levels (1, 4, & 7) as the line of distinction between them can often be difficult to ascertain for the untrained and it may prove dangerous to underestimate the condition.
Definition: Sorting desirable from undesirable by means of a utensil (designed for sifting or sorting).
This is essentially the same as the melochah of Borer, but performed with a utensil specifically designed for the purpose of sorting, such as a sieve, strainer, or the like. As such, Borer acts done with such a device, such as the netting of a tea bag, would be classed as an act of Merakaid (Sieving/Straining).
Definition: Combining particles into a semi-solid or solid mass via liquid.
Kneading is not a very accurate translation of this activity. It may better be translated as 'amalgamation' or the like. The key principle of this creative activity is the combining of solid and liquid together to make a paste or dough-like substance.
There are four categories of substances produced: -
Only a Blilah Aveh is biblically forbidden to be made on the Sabbath while Blilah Racha mixtures are rabbinically forbidden to make without the use of a "shinui", such as the reversing the adding of the ingredients or mixing in criss-cross motions to differentiate the task, in which case they are permitted. As Davar Nozel and Chatichot Gedolot are not really mixtures, even after adding the liquid to the solid, they are permitted to be made on the sabbath without any shinui (unusual mode) of production.
Definition for solids: Changing the properties of something via heat. Liquids: Bringing a liquid's temperature to the heat threshold. 'Heat' for these purposes is at the threshold known as "Yad Soledet" (lit. Hand [by reflex] draws back [due to such heat]) which according to the Igrot Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Finestein) is 43 °C (110 °F).
Baking, cooking, frying, or any method of applying heat to food to prepare for eating is included in this prohibition. This is different from "preparing". For example, one can make a salad because the form of the vegetables doesn't change, only the size. However one cannot cook the vegetables to soften them for eating. Baking itself was not performed in the mishkan as bread was not required for the structure.
Hebrew: גוזז צמר
Definition: Severing/uprooting any body-part of a creature.
Definition: Cleansing absorbent materials of absorbed/ingrained impurities.
Definition: Separating/disentangling fibres.
Definition: Coloring/enriching the color of any material or substance.
Definition: Twisting fibres into a thread or twining strands into a yarn.
Definition: Creating the first form for the purpose of weaving.
See further: Chayei Adam Shabbos 25
Hebrew: עושה שתי בתי נירין
Definition: Forming loops for the purpose of weaving or the making of net like materials. This is also the threading of two heddles on a loom to allow a 'shed' for the shuttlecock to pass through. According to the Rambam it is the making of net-like materials.
See further: Chayei Adam Shabbos 25
Hebrew: אורג שני חוטין
Definition: Form fabric (or a fabric item) by interlacing long threads passing in one direction with others at a right angle to them.
See further: Chayei Adam Shabbos 25
Hebrew: פוצע שני חוטין
Definition: Removing/cutting fibres from their frame, loom or place.
See further: Chayei Adam Shabbos 25
Definition: Binding two pliant objects in a skilled or permanent manner via twisting.
Definition: The undoing of any Koshair or Toveh (see above) binding.
Definition: Combining separate objects into a single entity, whether through sewing, gluing, stapling, welding, dry mounting, etc.
Definition: Ripping an object in two or undoing any Tofair (see above) connection.
Definition: Forcible confinement of any living creature.
The Mishna does not just write "trapping"; rather, the Mishna says "trapping deer". According to at least one interpretation, this teaches that to violate the Torah's prohibition of Trapping, two conditions must be met.
This creates questions in practical Halakha such as: "May one trap a fly under a cup on Shabbat?" The Meno Netziv says that an animal that is not normally trapped (e.g. a fly, or a lizard) is not covered under the Torah prohibition of trapping. It is however, a Rabbinic prohibition to do so, therefore one is not allowed to trap the animal. However, if one is afraid of the animal because of its venomous nature or that it might have rabies, one may trap it. If it poses a threat to life or limb, one may trap it and even kill it if absolutely necessary.
Animals which are considered too slow-moving to be 'free' are not included in this category, as trapping them doesn't change their legal status of being able to grab them in 'one hand swoop' (a term used by the Rambam to define this law). One is therefore allowed to confine a snail or tortoise, etc. as you can grab them just as easily whether they are in an enclosure or unhindered in the wild. For these purposes trapping them serves no change to their legal status regarding their ease of capture, and they are termed legally pre-trapped due to their nature. Trapping is therefore seen not as a 'removal of liberty', which caging even such a slow moving creature would be, but rather the confining of a creature to make it easier to capture in one's hand.
Laying traps violates a Rabbinic prohibition regardless of what the trap is, as this is a normal method of trapping a creature.
Definition: Ending the life of a creature, whether through slaughter or any other method.
Definition: Removing the hide from the body of a dead animal.
(Removing skin from a live creature would fall under Shearing/Gozez.)
Hebrew: מעבד [Sometimes referred to as "Salting" מולח]
Definition: Preserving any item to prevent spoiling.
The list of activities in the Mishna includes salting hides and curing as separate categories of activity; the Gemara (Tractate Shabbat 75b) amends this to consider them the same activity and to include "tracing lines", also involved in the production of leather, as the thirty-ninth category of activity.
This activity extends rabbinically to the creative act of salting/pickling of foods for non-immediate use on the Sabbath.
Definition: Scraping/sanding a surface to achieve smoothness.
See further: Chayei Adam Shabbos 34–35
Definition: Scoring/drawing a cutting guideline.
See further: Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, Chapter "Klall Gadol", p. 52. tirone
Definition: Cutting any object to a specific size.
Definition: Writing/forming a meaningful character or design.
Rabbinically, even writing with one's weaker hand is forbidden. The Rabbis also forbade any commercial activities, which often lead to writing.
Hebrew: מוחק על מנת לכתוב שתי אותיות
Definition: Cleaning/preparing a surface to render it suitable for writing.
Erasing in order to write two or more letters is an example of erasing.
Definition: Contributing to the forming of any permanent structure.
Building can take two forms. First, there was the action of actually joining the different pieces together to make the mishcan. Inserting the handle of an axe into the socket is a derived form of this melakha. It is held by some that the act of Halakhic "building" is not actually performed (and therefore, the prohibition not violated) if the construction is not completed. From this, some authorities derive that it is prohibited to use electricity because, by turning on a switch, a circuit is completed and thus "built." (See "igniting a fire" below.)
Also, any making of a "tent" is forbidden. Therefore, umbrellas may not be opened (or closed), and a board may not be placed on crates to form a bench.
Either of these forms is only forbidden if done in a permanent fashion, though not necessarily with permanent intent. For example, closing and locking a door is permitted, regardless of how long one intends to keep the door closed. Making a pop-up tent is considered permanent (since it can stay up for a long time), even if one intends to take it down soon afterwards.
Definition: Demolishing for any constructive purpose.
For example, knocking down a wall in order to make space for an extension or repair of the wall would be demolition for a constructive purpose. Combing a wig to set it correctly and pulling out hairs during the procedure with a metal toothed brush or comb would be constructive 'demolition', as each hair that's removed in the process of the wig (a utensil) is progressing its state towards a completion which is desired. Each hair's removal is a partial demolition of the wig (for these legal purposes) and is considered constructive when viewed in context of the desired goal.
Definition: Extinguishing/diminishing the intensity of a fire/flame.
While extinguishing a fire is forbidden even when great property damage will result; in the event of any life-threatening fire one is required to extinguish the flames.
Definition: Igniting, fueling or spreading a fire/flame.
This includes making, transferring or adding fuel to a fire. (Note, however, that transferring fire is permitted on Jewish holidays. It is one of the exceptions to the rule that activities prohibited on Shabbat are likewise prohibited on Yom Tov.) This is one of the few Shabbat prohibitions mentioned explicitly in the Torah Exodus 35:3. Many poskim ground their prohibition of operating electrical appliances in this melakha.
Note that Judaism requires that at least one light (ordinarily candle or oil) be lit in honor of Shabbat immediately before its start.
This prohibition also was (and in many circles, still is) commonly understood to disallow operating electrical switches. One reason is that, when actuating electromechanical switches that carry a live current, there is always the possibility that a small electric spark will be generated. This spark may be thought of as a kind of fire, although since it is incidental and one does not benefit from it, it may not be a Sabbath violation at all. In any case, as science became more advanced, and the properties of fire and electricity became better understood, the former reasoning broke down: fire is a chemical reaction involving the release of energy; the flow of an electric current is a physical reaction. Therefore, some hold that the proper reason it is forbidden to complete electric circuits is because it involves construction or building (i.e., the building and completion of an electric circuit—see above). Rav Aurbach, a leading and widely accepted ultra-orthodox posek declined this argument comparing it to saying that you cannot shut a door, as it will effectively be completing a wall. He wrote, "In my opinion there is no prohibition [to use electricity] on Shabbat or Yom Tov... There is no prohibition of ma'keh bepatish or molid... (However, I [Rabbi Auerbach] am afraid that the masses will err and turn on incandescent lights on Shabbat, and thus I do not permit electricity absent great need...) ... This matter requires further analysis. ... However, the key point in my opinion is that there is no prohibition to use electricity on Shabbat unless the electricity causes a prohibited act like cooking or starting a flame." Some Conservative authorities, on the other hand, reject these arguments and permit the use of electricity.
For Shabbat Observant Jews who want to turn a light on and off on the sabbath the Shabbat lamp was invented. This circumvents this melocha, as the light is never turned on & off, only obscured and revealed via the design of the lamp housing.
Hebrew: מכה בפטיש (literally, striking with a hammer).
Definition: Any initial act of completion.
This melakha refers to an act of completing an object and bringing it into its final useful form. For example, if the pages of a newspaper were poorly separated, slicing them open would constitute "applying the finishing touch". Ribiat, infra. Using a stapler involves transgressing "applying the finishing touch" in regard to the staple, which is brought into its final useful form by the act. Ribiat, infra. Adding hot water to a pre-made 'noodle-soup-pot' type cup (a dehydrated mixture of freeze-dried seasoning and noodles) would be the final act of completion for such a food as the manufacturer desired to make the product incomplete awaiting the consumer to finish the cooking process at their convenience. This particular example would also violate בישול (cooking) as well if hot water from a kettle/urn was directly applied. Ribiat, infra.
Hebrew: מוציא מרשות לרשות / הוצאה
Definition: Transferring something from one domain type to another domain type.
This law is often referred to as carrying. This is a misnomer, as will be discussed.
Chapters 1 and 11 of Talmud tractate Shabbat deals with the melakha of transferring from one domain to another, commonly called "carrying". The tractate distinguishes four domains: private, public, semi-public and an exempt area. It holds that the transfer of an article from a private to a public domain is Biblically forbidden. Transferring an article between a semi-public to a private or public domain is Rabbinically prohibited. Transferring an article between an exempt area and any other domain is permissible.
There's a special rule regarding the carrying of an article four amos (about 1.7 m) which may be forbidden in a public (or semi-public) domain alone, while it's permitted in a private domain or exempt area. If one's in a truly public domain from a Halachic perspective, the area around the individual is considered a small domain within the public area. So, carrying out of that encapsulated surrounding area a person is standing in is problematic as one moves into a 'new' domain every four amos. This is an in-depth area of study with many ramifications. An Eruv functions to merge areas into one encapsulated "private domain" thus allowing people to carry items within the confines of the Eruv, as the area within the Eruv is considered a private domain for these purposes, and therefore no transference is taking place.
For these purposes "transferring" means "removing and depositing", so carrying an article out of one domain type and returning to the same domain type without setting it down in the interim into a different domain type does not constitute transference from one domain type to another domain type. Although, this is rabbinically prohibited.
The definition of public and private domain is related to its relative amount of enclosures, not on strict ownership. It should be noted that this is a particularly complex area of law, as the legal definitions of private and public domains are intricate, although clear. Background knowledge, and definitions, of domain types must be understood before one can fully understand the laws of transference in this context.
This law is often referred to as carrying. This is a misnomer. Carrying within a domain type is (usually, but not always) completely permitted. It's the transference between domain types that is considered a creative activity for the purposes of Sabbath observance. Indeed, all an Eruv accomplishes is a merger of different domain types into one domain type, making carrying within the area enclosed by the Eruv no different from carrying within a room of a house (i.e. one domain type, namely a private domain), which is permitted.
See further: Chayei Adam Shabbos 47–56.
In the event that a human life is in danger, a Jew is not only allowed, but required, to violate any Shabbat law that stands in the way of saving that person. The concept of life being in danger is interpreted broadly; for example, it is mandated that one violate Shabbat to take a woman in active labor to a hospital.